FARGO, ND– Day one of the NCAA West Regional began on Thursday in a very Minnesota-centric regional. St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, and Minnesota all took to the ice, with Canisius being the only outlier of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. A thrilling first forty minutes of both games led to an all-Minnesota final with St. Cloud State and University of Minnesota heading to the West Regional Final on Saturday.
ST. CLOUD STATE (4) vs. MINNESOTA STATE (0): The weekend started with the Minnesota State Mavericks and the St. Cloud State Huskies. Off the start, Minnesota State was pressuring the cage of St. Cloud, but Jaxon Castor stood strong and was able to see through the traffic in front in order to keep his sheet clean through the first 20 minutes. On the other side, the Huskies didn’t get a shot until the middle of the frame was relatively quiet with their offense, only tallying four shots in the first 20 minutes.
“Their forcheck is the biggest part of the game and we felt that in the first,” Huskies forward Jack Peart mentioned. “Our breakouts got better as the game went on and that was a key to our success.”
Minnesota State continued to put the pressure on Castor, but he was locked into the moment. With a power play in the middle part of the frame, the Huskies finally came alive and opened the scoring from a Veeti Miettinen laser from the top of the right circle to open the scoring. While Ondrej Pavel and David Silye tried to get the offense going for the Mavericks, they couldn’t get anything behind Castor. Late in the frame, the Huskies would add to their lead with Jack Peart wiring a shot off the crossbar and in to give St. Cloud a two-goal lead after two periods of play.
In the third, it was a game of bad bounces against the Mavericks turning into a reversal of fortune for the Huskies. It started with a flurry from Minnesota State that had a puck approach the goal line, but never make it cross thanks to a clear off the line by the St. Cloud defense. That transitioned into a rush for the Huskies and ended with a Zach Okabe puck that looped over Keenan Rancier’s shoulder to make it 3-0. Moments later, Minnesota State pulled Rancier and tried to get some momentum going, but after a shot hitting both posts, St. Cloud iced the game with an empty netter from Grant Cruikshank to seal it 4-0. Castor made 34 saves in the shutout.
“We played Duluth, North Dakota, CC was playing for their lives,” Huskies head coach Brett Larson remarked post-game. “And there were two thoughts in my head. First, I hope this has battle tested us and sharpened us for a game we have to play. My worry was had we expended a lot of energy to do that. In that first period, Mankato took it to us. I was a little worried we had expended too much energy. But I think it went the other way, having to play for every inch on the ice helped us stick with it and not get frustrated.”
“We had momentum, but there’s a reason they keep score and it’s not by shots on goal,” Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings said post-game. “I thought we did a good job at staying after it without creating St. Cloud’s offense. Then they score a power play goal and I think they took momentum from there.”
MINNESOTA (9) VS. CANISIUS (2): History hasn’t been on the side of the #1 overall seed in recent trips to Fargo or North Dakota for that matter, with St. Cloud State being downed to AIC in 2019, as well as Minnesota losing to Holy Cross in Grand Forks in 2006. Hoping to remove those memories, the Gophers were able to get out to a quick start and were able to bring the pressure to Canisius. It paid off with Luke Mittelstadt putting the Gophers up first with a shot from the goal line that hit off the inside thigh of goalie Jacob Barczewski to make it 1-0. However, a power play for Canisius later would allow the Griffins to control the puck in their offensive zone and tie the game off a Daniel DiGrande one-timer just seconds after their power play expired to tie the game. Canisius showed little fear against the #1 team and were daring in their offensive zone entries. The game was tied at the first intermission.
Working off of their goal, Canisius looked to add to their total and would get the lead in the second frame. Nick Bowman’s skill and patience paid off with a deke between his defender’s legs and then placing the perfect shot off the inside post to beat Justen Close to make it 2-1 Griffins. The Gophers were looking for some answers and tried to press, but Barczewski was coming through clutch when facing the barrage of Gopher shots. Minnesota would break through with an Aaron Huglen wrist shot that beat Barczewski to the blocker side and tied the game. That goal energized the Gophers, as they continued to put the pressure on Canisius. With under two minutes left in the second, Minnesota would regain the lead when Connor Kurth outpowered his defender and fired a centering shot home to make it 3-2 Minnesota going into the second intermission.
To start the third, Stefano Bottini of Canisius received a five-and-game for contact to the head, giving the Gophers the opening to put it away. It started less than a minute into the major power play with Jimmy Snuggerud slapping home his 21st of the year for the 4-2 lead. Moments later, Brody Lamb ripped a shot under the arm of Barczewski to make it 5-2 with still half the power play to go. While Canisius killed off the rest of the power play, the damage was done.
“It was sort of just maintaining pressure,” mentioned Gophers forward Bryce Brodzinski of the extended power play. “With a five-minute major it’s a good point for us to get their defense tired. As long as we’re in the o-zone and not giving them a chance to change, it kind of got them tired for the rest of the game.”
After a disallowed goal when the puck didn’t cross the line, Minnesota was able to get it back and make it 6-2 with Brodzinski notching his 16th goal of the year at the halfway mark of the period. Gophers continued to pile it on with back-to-back goals from Mason Nevers on the power play and Brodzinski 22 seconds apart to make it 8-2. With under a minute remaining, Brodzinski finished his hat trick to make the final 9-2 for the Gophers.
“It was the closest 9-2 game I’ve ever seen,” said Gophers head coach Bob Motzko. “They had a 2-1 lead in the second and they were playing to their game plan. What I liked about us is that we stuck to our game plan and got pucks deep. And we had to grind tonight with how they were going to play. The only way we we going to do it was to grind. Then the power play got going, but it was a lot closer game than the score.”